Desperate Iraqis scuffle for aid packages

Kuwaiti supply trucks met by hungry, thirsty crowd

War In Iraq

March 27, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAFWAN, Iraq - The barefoot boy, maybe 5 years old, was named Jan if he understood the question put to him yesterday, the day this one small child on this one small patch of blood-dampened desert scrambled for some benefit from war, a tiny benefit, but something.

Food arrived here yesterday in southernmost Iraq. Water did, too. To meet it came this little boy: dirty, thirsty, hungry, desperate, dressed in ragged clothing that just 54 miles to the south, in Kuwait City, would not be used to wipe down a car.

And with the boy came many other boys and many men and a few women and the chaos to be expected when three 18-wheel tractor-trailers filled with supplies arrive at a town in which people have been scooping rain from dirt puddles to wash and to drink.

The scene was a slice of war that has nothing to do with victory or defeat but with survival.

Journalists were there just before the arrival of the first supply trucks. About 150 reporters and cameramen had been corralled by the Kuwait Ministry of Information, packed into four buses and driven to the demilitarized zone that buffers Iraq and Kuwait, where the trucks had been waiting for them before heading into town.

When the reporters arrived, the supply trucks followed. The residents of Safwan first saw the journalists - hard to mistake with all the television cameras sprouting from the buses - and about 300 young men and boys raced about 400 yards from the gates of the city to a large flat area of desert ground the consistency of hot-chocolate mix.

No one outside Iraq had paid much attention to this town since 1991, when an American general and an Iraqi general met in a tent here, signed an agreement, and proclaimed to reporters an end to the Persian Gulf war - the first gulf war. Now that there's a second, the soldiers and the reporters were back.

Yesterday, the young Iraqis used the media to show - or at least feign - support for Saddam Hussein; the Kuwaiti government used the media and young Iraqis to demonstrate its concern for its neighbors; the journalists used the whole scene for their story of the day, dutifully recording the event designed to appear as if it had sprung spontaneously from the desert.

When the journalists poured out of their vehicles, the young Iraqis clustered into a solid circle, jumped pogo-style on one leg and chanted, "With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice for you Saddam!"

These were not the pictures the Kuwaiti government, nor the U.S. government, had hoped for, but the trucks with the food and water - adorned with giant signs that said, "A gift from the people of Kuwait to the people of Iraq" - were lagging behind and did not arrive until the Iraqis were already in a made-for-television frenzy.

When the trucks did arrive, about a minute later, the chants ended mid-sentence. The oaths of sacrifice of blood and soul gave way to the need for food and water.

Personal appeal for food

Jan, the little boy, ran from the crowd and the trucks and instead approached soldiers and reporters and begged for food, arching his back to thrust his belly forward, rubbing it in big circles in cartoon fashion, pulling an empty hand from an empty pocket, moving it to an empty mouth and pretending to chew. He seemed to sense the fight for the gifts would get ugly.

He was right.

The Iraqis swarmed to the back of the trucks. The longest arms grabbed at handles and swung giant doors open. Inside, boxes were stacked like small treasure chests. The long arms pulled the care packages to the ground.

Larger and stronger men pushed and pulled their way past smaller and weaker men and hoisted themselves up and onto the floors of the trailers. They tossed boxes to the scuffling people below, some of whom raised their arms as if providing goalposts for the hurlers.

As the boxes flew, as the trailers were emptying, more room was created on their floors. More men hoisted themselves up. Soon the trucks had more men than boxes in them, the trailers more packed than when they arrived, a mass of arms and legs and headdresses and robes and dirty clothes.

"This crazy," said Saad Juber-Sabah, a 17-year-old who was content with his one box of supplies and sat on it as if protecting a nest and watched the journalists watching the throng. "I am embarrassed."

Five weeks of food

According to aid workers, nobody is starving here, which does not mean that nobody is hungry. They estimate that food already available here will hold out for five weeks - longer as more supplies come in.

The situation is said to be the same in Basra and in Umm Qasr, which also received its first shipment of food, water and medicine yesterday.

Water is the real problem.

The war has knocked out water supplies to much of southern Iraq, including here in Safwan, and for the past several days residents have been dipping into puddles, wherever they can find them.

That has raised concerns of illness sweeping through the region, populated by a great number of people already malnourished.

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